How Henrietta Lacks Became the Mother of Modern Medicine

A historical marker in Clover, Virginia, honors Henrietta Lacks.
A historical marker in Clover, Virginia, honors Henrietta Lacks.

On February 8, 1951, a surgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, shaved a piece of cancerous tissue from the cervix of a 30-year-old woman. She had signed an “operation permit,” allowing him to place radium into her cervix to treat her cancer, but nobody had explained their plans to her. And no one foresaw that Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman with a sixth-grade education and five children, would become the mother of modern medicine.

Henrietta was born Loretta Pleasant on August 1, 1920, in Roanoke, Virginia. Somehow, her name became Henrietta. After her mother died in 1924, Henrietta was sent to Clover, Virginia, to live with her grandfather, Tommy Lacks. Her cousin David “Day” Lacks lived in the same house.

Seventeen years later, after having two children together, Henrietta and Day married and then moved close to Baltimore so that Day could work at Bethlehem Steel while Henrietta took care of their growing family. She was big-hearted, fun-loving, and pretty, and though only 5 feet tall, she dressed and walked with a flare.

Immortal Cells

But on January 29, 1951, four months after the birth of her fifth child, Henrietta went to the dreaded hospital. Most Black people living in the Baltimore area did not trust Johns Hopkins. It was segregated, so they were certain they would not receive the same quality of care as white people, and, worse, they would be used for medical experiments. There were rumors that surgeons routinely performed hysterectomies on Black women who came in with any type of abdominal or pelvic pain. Henrietta was not one to complain, but, according to the 2010 book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, she could no longer bear the painful “knot on her womb.”

The tissue taken from her cervix 10 days later was given to Dr. George Gey, director of tissue culture research at Hopkins [PDF]. He believed that if he could find a continually dividing line of malignant human cells, all originating from the same sample, he could find the cause of cancer—and its cure. His assistant placed tiny squares of the specimen into test tubes, then labeled each tube with the first two letters of the unwitting donor’s first and last names: HeLa.

Oregon State University via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Soon, Henrietta’s cells began to divide. And, unlike the other cells they had sampled, they did not die. Gey started giving the immortal cells to colleagues, saying they had come from a woman named Helen Lane.

Within two years, HeLa cells had been put into mass production, commercialized, and distributed worldwide, becoming central to the development of vaccines and many medical advances. By 2017, HeLa cells had been studied in 142 countries and had made possible research that led to two Nobel Prizes, 17,000 patents, and 110,000 scientific papers, thereby establishing Henrietta’s role as the mother of modern medicine.

Henrietta had died on October 4, 1951. No one had told Henrietta, or her husband Day, that the cells still existed. No one had mentioned the myriad hopes and plans for HeLa cells. No one had asked permission to take them or use them.

HeLa Revealed

In 1971, an article in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology reexamined the origin of the HeLa cells and reported that cervical adenocarcinoma had led to the death of the cell donor, Henrietta Lacks. Her name was now public knowledge.

Two years later, in a casual conversation with a friend, Henrietta’s family learned about the cells. The Lackses were shocked: Henrietta was alive through her cells.

A scanning electron micrograph of just-divided HeLa cellsNational Institutes of Health, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Then, a Rolling Stone article created an uproar in the scientific community by disclosing that the woman behind the cells was Black. Once again, the Lacks family was stunned. The article revealed that significant amounts of money were being made from the cells—while Henrietta's husband and children could not afford decent medical care and while her body lay in an unmarked grave.

More reports were written about Henrietta’s cells. Intimate details from her medical record were exposed in a 1986 book called A Conspiracy of Cells: One Woman’s Immortal Legacy and The Medical Scandal It Caused. Medical professionals came to draw blood from her children. The BBC made a movie, The Way of All Flesh. And, as Skloot reports, a con man claimed he could get money for the family from Johns Hopkins.

Meanwhile, and throughout subsequent decades, the Lacks family's focus has been to try to figure out what it means to them that her cells are alive. They have received none of the billions of dollars the cells have garnered for biomedical companies, cell banks, and researchers. But Henrietta’s family can be heartened that through the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, founded by Skloot in 2009, the mother of modern medicine continues to demonstrate her big-heartedness.

The foundation’s mission is to “provide financial assistance to individuals in need, and their families, who have made important contributions to scientific research without personally benefiting from those contributions, particularly those used in research without their knowledge or consent." Moreover, it gives the countless people who have benefited from their contributions a way to show their appreciation to them. To date, members of the Lacks family and others have received more than 50 monetary grants.

Thursday’s Best Amazon Deals Include Guitar Kits, Memory-Foam Pillows, and Smartwatches

Amazon
Amazon
As a recurring feature, our team combs the web and shares some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. Here’s what caught our eye today, December 3. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers, including Amazon, and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

Starbucks Is Giving Free Coffee to Frontline COVID-19 Workers All Month Long

Starbucks is saying thank you in typical Starbucks fashion.
Starbucks is saying thank you in typical Starbucks fashion.
Starbucks

Starbucks is showing its support for those individuals on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19 this holiday season by giving the gift of free coffee—all month long.

From now through December 31, any health care worker or other frontline worker can get a tall hot or iced coffee whenever they stop by Starbucks. The offer extends to just about anybody in a medical profession, including doctors, nurses, public health administrators, pharmacists, paramedics, dentists and dental hygienists, therapists, psychologists, social workers, counselors, and other mental health professionals. Non-medical hospital personnel—including members of the janitorial, housekeeping, and security staffs—also qualify, as do emergency dispatchers, firefighters, police officers, and active-duty members of the military.

To address the pandemic’s emotional toll on essential workers, Starbucks has also contributed $100,000 to the National Alliance on Mental Illness to be used for virtual mental health services; and the company will give out 50,000 Starbucks care packages and gift cards to frontline workers across the country. While the main goal is to show gratitude to those keeping the nation afloat during an extremely difficult time, Starbucks is also hoping their initiative can be an example for other companies with resources to spare.

“Hopefully other brands will join us in thinking about how [they can] use their platform to again show support,” Virginia Tenpenny, Starbucks's vice president of global social impact, told USA TODAY. “Little deposits in morale can really go a long way, just so that they feel the support from our community.”

It’s not the first time Starbucks has spearheaded a long-term coffee giveaway this year; between March and May, the company handed out more than 2 million free cups of joe to professionals helping the country through the coronavirus pandemic. The Starbucks Foundation has also donated several million dollars to relief funds, food banks, and local organizations.

[h/t USA Today]